(IPS) WASHINGTON -- After three years of malign neglect toward the Americas' first black republic, the administration of President George W. Bush now finds itself confronting a nation-building challenge in Haiti of staggering proportions.
Sunday's U.S.-facilitated -- unconfirmed reports say dictated -- departure Sunday of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and the landing of U.S. and French troops in the capital Port-au-Prince have clearly opened up what Bush himself called a "new chapter" for Haiti, but whether that will include "a hopeful future," as he put it, remains very much in doubt.
While Haitian Supreme Court Chief Justice Boniface Alexandre was sworn in Sunday as interim president, U.S. officials here Monday were casting about for ways to form a credible government pending elections that must take place within 90 days, according to the country's constitution.
"The U.S. doesn't have much to work with," said Jocelyn McCalla, director of the New York-based National Coalition for Haitian Rights. The notion that setting up a new electoral commission and initiating a serious political campaign given the weakness of the various parties risks transforming any election held within that time into a "sham," he told IPS.
"The opposition coalition is too eclectic, and I think it will collapse very quickly," he suggested, while Aristide's Lavalas movement "was really more of a following than a party, and it's doubtful that it can survive Aristide's absence."
But even the constitution of an interim government could prove very difficult, according to analysts here, who said they were very concerned about the intentions of the armed rebels, whose three-week-old uprising accomplished what the unarmed opposition had been unable to do in three years.
Among its leaders are former officers in the Haitian Army that overthrew Aristide in 1991 and that he successfully abolished after U.S. forces returned him to power in 1994.
Other leaders included men, such as Louis Jodel Chamblain and Jean Tatoune, who were in the top ranks of the Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti (FRAPH), a paramilitary group that conducted a reign of terror against suspected Aristide sympathisers during military rule.
Secretary of State Colin Powell made an indirect reference to some of these men when he said Saturday, there are "individuals we would not want to see re-enter civil society in Haiti because of their past records, and this is something we will have to work through."
The apparent leader of the rebels is Guy Philippe, a former U.S.-trained Army officer who gained a brutal reputation as police chief of Delmas and Cap Haitien before fleeing into exile after leading an unsuccessful coup d'etat against Aristide in 2001.
While Philippe has previously denied any interest in gaining power and promised to cooperate with U.S. and international forces sent to maintain the peace, he appeared to change his tune Sunday. Asked by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) on Monday if he expected his forces to be represented in the new government, he replied, "I don't 'expect' it. I know that we will be part of it."
Philippe and his followers, many of whom are former soldiers, have also made no secret of their desire to see the Haitian Army reconstituted; indeed, some analysts expect they will make that a condition for their cooperation in any disarmament process.
Some right-wing elements in the opposition, including representatives of the traditional mulatto elite that effectively ran Haiti with the army until Aristide was restored to power, have already spoken in favor of the idea.
But popular-based human-rights groups, labour unions and peasant organizations that linked up with the elite to oppose Aristide are likely to feel seriously threatened by any possible resurrection of the military.
Already, they and international groups with which they are allied are calling for the U.S.-led Multinational Interim Force (MIF) -- as the new UN.-authorised peacekeeping operation is called -- to undertake a major effort to ensure the complete disarmament of both the rebels and pro-Aristide militias.
"The failure to disarm the disbanded Haitian military and paramilitary in 1994," said Amnesty International on Monday, "has been one of the root causes of ongoing political violence in Haiti."
London-based Amnesty also called for the MIF to arrest Chamblain and Tatoune, who were both convicted for political murders in the mid-1990s.
Beyond restoring order, disarming the various forces, and putting together a credible interim government and electoral process, Washington and its allies also face a formidable task in restarting the economy, which has been starved for economic assistance since 2000 when Washington and other donors began withholding aid to protestallegedly flawed parliamentary elections.
While much of that assistance is still being held by international financial institutions (IFIs), such as the World Bank, and could be disbursed fairly quickly if the major donors agree on a strategy, Washington itself might have to pony up several hundred million dollars more a year in aid to keep the hem isphere's poorest economy afloat, according to James Dobbins, former president Bill Clinton's special envoy to Haiti in the mid-1990s.
Writing in the 'New York Times' as the anti-Aristide rebellion spread 10 days ago, Dobbins also urged that much of the aid should go to building up state institutions, which had been sorely neglected after Aristide's restoration, in part because of Republican antipathy for Aristide in the U.S. Congress.
To Republican ears, all this sounds like "nation-building," a practice they disdained during the Clinton years and which Bush, of course, promised to forswear in the 2000 elections.
But with the Bush administration already committing tens of billions of dollars to "nation-building" exercises in Afghanistan and Iraq, complaints from Republicans are likely to be muted at best.
"There will be another exercise in nation-building, which the president ran against in 2000 but now he's going to end up having to do," said William Kristol, the neo-conservative editor of 'The Weekly Standard', Sunday.
The alternative -- more chaos in Haiti and the likely outflow of thousands of Haitian "boat people" seeking refuge in the United States -- is clearly of great concern to the administration, which deployed Coast Guard vessels around Haiti precisely to pick up and return people trying to flee the country last week.
Indeed, it was the interception of more than 500 boat people late last week, as well as suggestions by Aristide that he might encourage an exodus, that apparently persuaded the administration -- which is already looking ahead to November's presidential election -- to change its position of seeking a power-sharing arrangement between Aristide and his opposition to one of ensuring his removal.
"Despite the lofty pronouncements that they wanted to save democracy in Haiti and that this time they're going to get it right," said McCalla, "the U.S. interest in Haiti is limited to seeing that Haitians do not come here in large numbers."
"But if that remains the predominant thinking in Washington, then we will face another disaster in the future," he added.
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